Who are the 'modern' haredim in haredi society?

The haredi world in Israel is changing, and at a high velocity. But this change is not uniform and has triggered considerable backlash.

 THE BIZMAX Innovation Center, a Jerusalem co-working space for haredi men and a hub for networking and collaboration. (photo credit: FLASH90)
THE BIZMAX Innovation Center, a Jerusalem co-working space for haredi men and a hub for networking and collaboration.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

There is disparate and even contradictory data regarding the true number of haredim hadashim, literally new or modern haredim, as well as many variables influencing their position in ultra-Orthodox society. But one thing is commonly agreed upon: the haredi world in Israel is changing, and at a high velocity.

However, this is not a uniform change but rather the results of multiple processes taking place in this sector. And there has been quite a lot of backlash to this trend.

Basically, one can identify three major paths: academic studies; entering the labor market, with or without academic training; and enlisting in the IDF. While the first two do not necessarily involve changes in the conservative lifestyle of ultra-Orthodoxy, those who enlist in the IDF – even in the special haredi and separated units – are a completely different story.

What and when did the movement to include some changes in the haredi way of life begin, and where? There are several answers, but two of the reasons that many believe started the process are poverty and the Internet. And some would say – the combination of the two.

Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, a Litvak haredi and graduate of the Kol Torah, Ponivez and Mir yeshivas, published in 2005 an article in Eretz Aheret, an Israeli magazine that deals with Israeli societal concerns and the Jewish people, founded by Bambi Sheleg. The article brought the issue of poverty in haredi society to the forefront for the first time, with implications for the future.

 HAREDI WOMEN, both hassidic and Lithuanian, have always worked. (credit: Kate Sade/Unsplash) HAREDI WOMEN, both hassidic and Lithuanian, have always worked. (credit: Kate Sade/Unsplash)

Cohen stated that this disgraceful poverty would not allow haredi society to survive, shedding light on a problem thus far largely unknown to the wider public. Eventually, it ignited a deep, fascinating and important discussion about the socioeconomic situation of haredim, especially their children.

After years of activism for the promotion of employment, vocational training and higher education in the haredi community and two years as a partner in the establishment of the KMH Foundation (Haredi Professional Advancement) and a foundation for social entrepreneurship, Cohen launched the first Yeshiva College in Jerusalem to train students with a full curriculum in addition to Talmudic studies. He also published innovative articles on economic distress and employment in haredi society and completed a degree in sociology and political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

COHEN IS, in many ways, typical of the “new haredi” – he still is part of haredi society, albeit in constant tension with some of the more conservative rabbis in the sector, but adamant about promoting his central message: haredim have to complete academic studies or professional training and join the Israeli employment market to avoid a general economic collapse.

Cohen was a kind of pioneer, but today data from different organizations show that the movement he launched has changed haredi society, though many – from inside the community – still deny this is a large and broad movement.

For many decades, the ultra-Orthodox adopted the “learner society” way of life – the famous term coined by sociologist Menachem Friedman that refers to men who engage in Torah study at the expense of a earning a livelihood. Today, the new haredim seem empowered to view other lifestyles as a legitimate choice as well. For many, in the general societal and political sectors, haredim are often presented as a latent but significant threat to the character of the State of Israel – economically (due to their absence from the labor market) and by refraining from military service.

For many secular people, the new haredim could be considered as a reassuring message announcing that the situation is not lost. However, according to many haredim, both among those who left yeshiva and those who reject any change, they maintain that such an approach misses the cultural significance of the change, the essence of which is to overall reduce Torah study.

MK Itzhak Pindrus, former deputy mayor and board member of a Jerusalem-based institute for haredi-sector studies, says that the number of those who quit yeshiva and also stop leading a religious life is constantly falling. Pindrus maintains that going to university doesn’t mean less stringency in following haredi life – quite to the contrary. In that context, it is worth noting that the majority of haredi students in academic colleges request and moreover demand gender segregation in classrooms; some even refuse to accept a female teacher in a men’s classroom.

In contrast, by attending an academic educational setting, for quite many that step marks a radicalization of their haredi identity and involves a direct ideological confrontation with secularism. In other words, they will study less at the yeshiva, acquire academic education and work, but will not, as a result, slam the door on haredi society. “In quite a few cases,” says a haredi man in his 40s, one who decided to leave the yeshiva for studies at the Hebrew University, “this is the only way a haredi father can ensure that at least his sons can continue in the yeshiva, now that he is making enough money from his work outside.”

AS TO haredi women, the changes are not so sweeping or significant. After all, haredi women, certainly in Hassidism but also in the Lithuanian stream, have always worked.

One of the changes was to allow women to study subjects that had not been previously available within the ultra-Orthodox framework until now, such as working in hi-tech fields. The haredi college initiated by Adina Bar-Shalom – daughter of Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef – trained female students in the fields of psychology, social work and special education. Later, men who studied there on a separate floor with strict adherence to total gender separation were similarly trained in such professions.

Once universities and academic colleges realized the economic advantages that came with including haredi students – making them eligible for large budgets from the government and some associations – quite a few opened separate classes to accommodate to their needs. It followed that the need for Bar-Shalom’s pioneering institutions decreased and they were closed.

The Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) made a significant impact on academic education for young haredim with the Lev Academic Center, recognized by the Council for Higher Education, which specializes in providing high-level scientific and technological education. More than 2,000 of JCT’s 4,700 students are ultra-Orthodox, others are Ethiopian-Israelis, national-religious and international students. JCT’s main campus (“Lev”) is situated in the Givat Mordechai neighborhood with branches in Givat Shaul and Ramat Gan (“Lustig Campus”). JCT offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in several fields of study combined with intensive Jewish studies.

BUT WHO are the new haredim who turn to the army, labor and academia, and do they herald a weakening of the famous “society of learners”? The Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, which specializes in strategic planning, development, implementation and promotion of data-based policies and research in everything related to haredi society in Israel, examines this from a haredi point of view. The goal of the institute is to find a successful, dignified and realistic solution to the challenges that the new reality poses for both haredi society and the state, without causing them to leave the haredi way of life.

In Jerusalem, one can see the changes in conduct among the haredim, as many, couples with or without their children, sit in restaurants and cafés, cultivating leisure – things that were unthinkable until recently. In arts and culture their presence is wider – the Jerusalem Biennale hosted a few haredi artists, who presented their works to mixed audiences in  mixed settings with secular artists as the most natural thing to do – again, something that was inconceivable not that long ago.

As for those who enrolled in the IDF, opinions are divided. Some see them as the harbinger of a deeper change, while others claim the recruits are young people who were already on their way to dropping out of the yeshivas and haredi society, and hence, do not represent an accurate trend.

This is the fifth in a series of article about the different groups that comprise Jerusalem’s haredi sector.

Academia

Between 2009-2019, there was a 180% increase in the rate of haredi students in Israeli higher education institutions. This trend stems from the intersection of many factors, including: government welfare policy; changes in the employment market in the haredi sector and in the general sector; programs dedicated to haredim in academia and employment; and intra-sectoral changes such as modernization. In academia haredi men and women face many barriers to integration, such as lack of knowledge of English and math.

In 2018-2019, 1,500 haredi students studied in Jerusalem: 412 at the Hebrew University, 223 in academic colleges and 865 in teachers colleges.

At Lev College, 46% of all students were haredi. At Ono Academic College, Jerusalem branch, 29% were haredi and at Hadassah Academic College, 19%. While the Hebrew University does not have any branch designated for ultra-Orthodox students that provides sectoral and gender segregation, while academic colleges do have such classes.

Internet

In 2015-2016, 43% of the haredim used the Internet, representing around half the percentage of users in the rest of Israeli society. There are still no up-to-date statistics on the coronavirus period. Researchers anticipate that future data will bear out their belief that usage of the Internet and smartphones increased by high percentages during the pandemic.

Source: The Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research